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The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
Ted Striphas
Columbia University Press, 2009
272 pp., $75.00

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Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books
Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books
Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 2010
304 pp., $25.00

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Alan Jacobs


Book Cultures

Love of books, love of reading: not the same thing.

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It is instructive in several ways to turn from Striphas' account to Margaret Willes' Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books. The history Willes tells is primarily English rather than American, but like Striphas she tells it episodically; given the period she covers, she could scarcely do anything else. Willes begins with what we might call the "early age of print"—when only the rich could own significant numbers of books—through the rise of a large reading public—which eventually led to the creation of lending libraries—and on to the highly consequential invention of the paperback and the sales of books in places other than bookstores. Near the end she even finds time to mention Oprah's Book Club and the Harry Potter books.

The complex economics of the book trade—of the various kinds of book trade that we have seen since the invention of print—is certainly central to Willes' story. She wants to know how people got books: Where did they buy them? How did they decide where to look? How did booksellers let people know what books they had available? (I was fascinated to learn that the famous annual Frankfurt Book Fair began issuing catalogues in 1564—1564!—and many English book collectors in the early modern period subscribed and ordered books from it.) But Willes always gives economic considerations their fully human context. She names for us the various London booksellers from whom Samuel Pepys acquired his vast collection, but also tells us that the famously randy Pepys made a point of kissing one bookseller's wife and was deeply disappointed when, on his subsequent visits, she was absent (probably intentionally). Pepys may not have chosen that tradesman wholly because of the excellence of his stock. In a similar mode, Willes describes the heroic but unsuccessful efforts booksellers made to save their books from the Great Fire of London in 1666: they stored everything in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, trusting in the security of those vast stone walls, but when the church burned they lost everything. The diarist, gardener, and historian John Evelyn estimated that £200,000 of books were destroyed—something like $15,000,000 in today's money. Pepys' favorite bookseller at the time was one Joshua Kirton, and for November 1667 of the following year we find this entry in the famous diary: "This day I hear Kirton, my bookseller, poor man, is dead, I believe, of grief for his losses by the fire."

Pepys was a true collector, and not just of books: he owned, for instance, over 1,700 ballads, more than anyone else of his time, and Willes tells us that "over half the items in his collection are the only known copies in existence." In his last years he was anxious over the future of his library, which in the end went to his old Cambridge college, Magdalene. This anxiety is common among collectors, and Willes describes one of the more unusual, if successful, resolutions of the old problem: In 1631 one Sir John Kedermister left his extensive library to his parish church in Berkshire, and when the books were moved to the church the room in which they had been housed was reconstructed there. In the tradition of the time, his family owned its own box pew in the church, and from that pew a door leads into the library—a private space for reading and contemplation, in which, surely, Kedermister's descendants found a refuge from tedious sermons.

Collectors almost by definition have disposable cash, and they tend to dominate the early chapters of Willes' book: Pepys, the Elizabethan matriarch Bess of Hardwick, even Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's inability to resist desirable objects—often, but not only, books—sent him deep into debt, which at one point he sought to relieve by selling his library to the country. As is generally known, it became the foundation for the Library of Congress. But the passion for books is scarcely confined to the rich. The great scholar Erasmus famously said, "When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes," but for some people those have quite literally been the choices. Willes cites the autobiography of the writer and political activist William Cobbett, who began his life in poverty and as a young man worked as a gardener on a great estate near Richmond. One day, when he had some time off, he decided to visit Kew Gardens, but on his way spotted a copy of Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub in the window of a bookseller for threepence. "The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited. I had the [threepence], but then, I could have no supper." He bought the book and immediately became so absorbed in it—even though many of its learned references were inscrutable to him—that he read until it was too dark to see the pages, scarcely noticing his hunger pangs. Later he would ascribe to that moment "a birth of intellect"—an example of social conscience, of anger at cruelty, and the power of words to embody that anger.

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